Footy pioneer continues her fight for women in coaching

AFTER more than two decades in the game Narelle Smith loves footy as much as she ever has, but the pioneering South Australian admits it can be a battle too.

A battle fought on two fronts.

Smith, formerly an assistant coach with Adelaide's AFLW side and the new SANFLW head coach at Woodville-West Torrens, is passionate about helping aspiring women pursue their coaching dreams in a male-dominated field.

Having also played in and coached successful sides in Adelaide's suburban league over the course of a decorated 26-year career, Smith is well-placed to help female coaches break down barriers.

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"I've spent half my life fighting for women to play football and the next layer of that is fighting for women to get opportunities in coaching," Smith told womens.afl.

"For women to get supported in how they expand their knowledge base of the game.

"Hopefully there are many women out there that will be able to be exposed to the learnings of the game at a higher level … that's the key.

"That will then build confidence to be able to see the game, coach it, and implement a program.

"That's a battle that many of us are having and we just have to keep having those battles … that's really the only answer.

"It will come but nobody wants to be patient any more."

Smith, who is a Detective Senior Sergeant with SA Police, is also a mentor with the SANFL's female coaching academy, which was set up with the aim of helping address the gender imbalance in coaching ranks.

While she's determined to fight for opportunities for others, her second battlefront is continuing to pursue her own career goals.

Smith made history when she became the first woman to coach a men's side in the SANFL when she took the reins of Glenelg's reserves team, which led to her successful three-year stint with the Crows that began with the 2019 premiership.

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Smith has come close to landing a senior AFLW coaching job in recent years before ultimately missing out despite her impressive credentials.

She admits to a level of frustration with that, but with no female head coaches to feature in the coming AFLW season, she knows she's not alone.

"There's not a lot of head coach roles in the AFLW for women … the opportunities aren't being given to females," she said.

"For whatever reasons clubs decide that, that's basically the landscape at the moment.

"I've had to manage my own frustrations and always revert back to why I do what I do - the reason that I love coaching is that I want to help people be the best version of themselves.

"Eventually you'll get the right (selection) panel if you keep trying … I'll keep banging on the door.

"But I'm really happy with the decision to take my destiny into my own hands and coach my own team."

Narelle Smith at Crows training in 2020. Picture: Getty Images

Smith admits it wasn't easy for her to leave her comfort zone at Adelaide where she was a well-respected figure in the club's successful women's program.

She will have her work cut out for her as she attempts to revitalise the Eagles' fortunes after they finished the last SANFLW season with the wooden spoon.

But she's thrilled at the prospect of being in charge of her own team once again.

"I call the head coach the 'centre of influence'," she said.

"I think I can have an impact in that space and help some female footballers get ready to take the next step if AFLW opportunities come.

"Part of that is also being able to help other female coaches out there get into programs if they want to develop.

"I've learned some tricks along the way, and I want to share that knowledge.

"I feel like I'm really rounded with the exposure that I've had and I'm able to take that back to state league level and I can pass on that knowledge to the players and coaches that I will have around me.

"I feel like it's a really positive move for me personally, but I'm also hoping to have a positive influence at state league level."

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Over the course of July, the football community is invited to join AFLW and State League coaches alongside other industry experts, in a three-part webinar series that showcases women’s coaching pathways across all levels of the game.

The AFL’s Women’s Coaching Pathways include:

She Can Coach Program
The ‘She Can Coach’ program was launched in 2018 and was established to increase the number of women in coaching, improve the capacity of these coaches, increase the visibility of coaching role models for women, and develop a network of women in coaching across all levels of the game. There are currently 36 women participating in the program, with four current Umpire Coaches, and 32 participants who are involved in coaching at either a community, state-league, or talent level. She Can Coach has expanded to a national program in 2021, after previously operating in Victoria only.

BHP Women’s Coaching Academy
The BHP Women’s Coaching Academy was launched in 2018 and provided six women with the opportunity to complete the Level 3 Coaching Course, in addition to further development opportunities. In 2021, the following women were selected as part of the BHP Women’s Coaching Academy:
Melissa Hickey
Natasha Hardy
Emma Sampson
Shannon Millar
Emma Grant
Lisa Roper
Dale Robinson
Sam Virgo

For further information about Women’s Coaching Month, and the AFL’s women’s coaching pathways including the She Can Coach program, BHP Women’s Coaching Academy and the AFL Victoria Women’s Coaching Academy, visit coach.afl/women-girls-coaching